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Christ, Our Hope
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
There are few religious subjects on which more has been written than the subject of hope. Not only volumes but whole courses, and not one but many of them, are available on "The Theology of Hope," on "Hope for the Modern Man," on "Hope and the Future of Christianity," on "Hope and Despair in the Modern World."
We do not have to go far to find a reason for this extraordinary preoccupation with hope today. There is so much to discourage even the most sanguine observer of world events in our day. In the Catholic Church we are seeing the most extensive defection from priestly and religious commitment certainly in the past five hundred years and perhaps in all of the Church's history. There is confusion in religious education, infidelity in Christian marriage, and the spectacle of a whole nation practicing genocide by contraception and induced abortion on a scale unparalleled in the annals of mankind.
Add to this the pervasive growth of Communism in the Far East and whole nations in Europe under the heel of Marxist tyranny, and it is no wonder so many are crying out in near despair, "How long, 0 Lord, how long:"
Yet for all these terrifying features, what gives most Christians greatest cause for concern, I believe, is not so much the large issues that surround them in the Church or the world. It is the painful experience that we have in our own personal and social lives. It is the tragedy of an only son who had thrilled the heart of his parents with his first priestly blessing and is now, as the saying goes, laicized. It is the horror of a young man or young woman, on whom parents have spent their life's earnings for higher education, now disowning the mother and father because the faith has been lost. It is the blank mystery of a dedicated man or woman who had left, as they felt, all things to follow Christ and now, years later, discover that the community they entered has ceased to exist except in name and that the vows they had so generously pronounced are now a mockery and a blasphemous sham.
Yes, there is more than enough to explain why those who read the Gospels with open eyes and try to live them are forced, almost in spite of themselves, to turn from the spectacle that surrounds them and turn to Christ as the only hope in today's world.
So, we ask ourselves, what do we hope in when we place our trust in Christ the Savior? This is not a vain question, because, depending on how authentic our hope is, we shall either have our hopes realized or we shall find them unfulfilled. And unfulfilled hopes are the seedbed of discouragement or even despair.
What to Hope For
There is a remarkable similarity between the situation in the time of Christ and the situation in our day.
In the time of Christ, the Jewish people had every reason to be discouraged. Here they were, the Chosen People of Yahweh, to whom the great prophets had promised such great things. They were to become the leaders of all nations, they were to enjoy great peace and the worship of the one true God was to spread from them to all the peoples of the earth. Their prophet Malachi foretold that, because of them from the farthest east to farthest west the name of Yahweh would be honored among the nations and everywhere a sacrifice of incense would be offered to His name, and a pure offering would be made, too, since His name would be honored among the Gentiles.
But what did the Jews see by the time of Christ? They saw their nation in virtual slavery under the Romans, their people forced to pay tribute to Caesar, their sacred laws ignored by the masters who controlled the people of God, and their lot not much better than it had been in Egypt centuries earlier under the persecuting hand of the Pharaohs. Is it surprising, then, that the Jews of first-century Palestine hoped for deliverance, or that up to the moment of Christ's ascension the Apostles kept asking Jesus, "Lord, has the time come? Are You going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"
This fact alone, that even the apostles, who had spent three years in the Savior's constant company, should have had such earthly desires, centered on the things of this world, speaks volumes for mistaken hopes to which all of us are prone -no matter how otherwise spiritual we may be.
When, therefore, we speak of Christian hope, we must know what it does not mean. It does not mean looking forward to an end of trial and tribulation. It does not mean expecting to be delivered from suffering and pain. It does not mean living in a dream world of unreality, which our drugs, and drink, and fiction, and movies, and media are fostering to the point where you begin to wonder, "Who is still sane in this world anyhow? Is it the writers of our television scenarios, or we?"
At the same time, we must beware of going to the opposite extreme. We should not conclude that, because so many have decided to escape from the brash reality by crawling into a cocoon of their own fancy, there is no hope of alleviation of the miseries of this world. That way lies mental suicide and is, if anything, even less worthy of a believing Christian.
The correct understanding of hope is beautifully illustrated in the episode described by the evangelist Luke. It took place on Easter Sunday afternoon. Though we have heard it many times, it deserves to be repeated. As I read the evangelist, note carefully the two concepts of hope that can be seen in conflict: the mistaken idea of the disciples and the correct one of the Savior.
"That same day, two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking together about all that had happened. Now as they talked this over, Jesus himself came up and walked by their side, but something prevented them from recognizing him. He said to them, 'What matters are you discussing as you walk along?' They. stopped short, their faces downcast.
"Then one of them, called Cleophas, answered him, 'You must be the only one staying in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have been happening there these last few days.' 'What things?' he asked. 'All about Jesus of Nazareth,' they answered, 'who proved he was a great prophet by the things he said and did in the sight of God and of the whole people; and how our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and had him crucified. Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free....' Then Jesus said to them, 'You foolish men: So slow to believe the full message of the prophets. Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory?'"
Rereading this account of the dialogue of Christ with the two disciples on the way to Emmaus reveals what all of us need to see very clearly, that authentic hope centers on the example of Christ. Like Him, we are to expect to suffer, and so, which means "and therefore" enter into glory--Christ into His, and we into ours.
Do not tell me this is an easy lesson to learn. It is the hardest conclusion we have to reach from the premises of our faith. All our natural instincts cry out for relief and our natural desires aim to be freed from oppression or misunderstanding or non-acceptance by those we love--in a word, to be delivered from pain. Yet that is not the way Christ lived nor should we expect to live that way ourselves.
What are we to hope for, then? We are to hope for the light we need to see the dawn over the horizon--in a word, to see that God has an all-wise purpose in giving us the privilege of joining with His Son in His passion. We are also to hope for the strength we need to bear with the crosses that God gives us, not only patiently but even joyfully. We are to hope for our own Easter Sunday, when God will wipe away all tears from our eyes, when there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness, when the world of the past--which for us is still the world of the painful present--will have gone.
How Christ is Our Hope
Having said all of this, one question still remains. How is Christ our hope, in a world--at least our own personal world--that sometimes seems to be so hopeless?
He is certainly our hope in the example He gave us of how we are to bear up under God's visitations, whether they are physical pain, or spiritual dryness, or social estrangement, or even open opposition from perhaps sincere people who, for that very reason, can cause us more suffering than people who are notoriously acting in bad faith. His patience is the model of what ours should be, even to excusing the murderers who nailed the innocent Lamb of God to the cross.
Christ is moreover our hope in the words of explanation--He went out of His way to teach us why the servant is not greater than the Master, and why we should be merciful, which means forgiving, to others, if we want God to be merciful to us. If there is one lesson that Christ never tired of repeating all through His public life and to the day of His ascension, it was the insistence that souls are redeemed only by suffering, that sins are remitted only by shedding of blood, and that man is reconciled to his Maker only by undergoing pain.
But Christ is especially our hope in the grace He is always pouring into our hearts to give us the strength we do not have of ourselves to cope with, I do not say the great trials of life, but even such minor problems as putting up with a person who talks too much, or who acts on the impulse of the moment, or who forgets to thank us for a favor received.
He is our hope because He is the almighty power of God who lives in the center of our being, ever ready and always at hand to help us bear with the crosses of our life, especially with the heaviest cross that we carry, which is ourselves.
But we must do our part. Jesus is our hope, indeed, but we must trust Him, and not belie by our actions what we profess with our lips. If we trust Him, we shall distrust ourselves, which means we shall not worry, because worry is a sign of reliance on self to the forgetfulness of God. If we trust Him, we shall not be anxious, because anxiety is a sign of expecting self to cope with difficulties that only God can overcome. If we trust Him, we shall not be sad, because sadness is a sign we still think we are somehow running the world, that is, the little world we occupy, whereas God is behind and beneath and beyond everything that, as we thoughtlessly say, "happens" to us and in us. Christ is, therefore, our hope because He is our only source of joy--now during these few short years on earth and then for all eternity.
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